January 8, 2021

Oregon Educators Worry About Signs of a Resurgent Achievement Gap

Based on a couple key indicators, students of color are lagging behind white students during distance learning, although the disparity seems smaller in rural districts.


Pamplin Media Group

The COVID-19 pandemic is widening achievement gaps for Oregon students of color, including those who attend rural schools.

In some Oregon schools, only half of Latino students were attending on a regular basis at the start of the school year and students of color were failing high school classes at twice the rate of their white classmates, according to records obtained by Pamplin Media Group from several Oregon districts, including urban, suburban and rural schools. 

Oregon educators, like their peers across the country, are facing unprecedented complications as most students and teachers adapt to distance learning. One of the challenges is a lack of readily available data on how they’re doing.

Oregon districts are tracking students in a couple of ways: attendance and pass/fail rates. Pass/fail rates are available only through districts. Quarterly attendance is being passed on to the Oregon Department of Education, but the state agency is not sharing it with districts — or the public — making it hard for educators, parents and policymakers to gauge how the school year is going.

So, over the past two months, Pamplin Media Group has contacted a dozen school districts, from rural Jefferson County to Portland and its suburbs to see how their students are doing. 

We found that distance learning has posed significant challenges for all students, but particularly students in rural areas, where connectivity is an issue, and students of color who, with the exception of Asian students, were attending less regularly than white students at the start of the school year.

But we also found that the “education gap” for students of color is smaller at rural districts, where teachers and administrators are finding creative ways to engage students — from increased home visits in Estacada and Banks to night classes in Gervais and bongo sessions in Madras.

What does ‘attendance’ look like in 2020

Last spring, when the coronavirus hit Oregon, the state ordered schools to close, moving all students to remote learning. Schools stopped taking attendance and recorded grades only on a pass/fail basis. This year, most students started school from home again, and most will remain in the distance learning model until at least February. To date, only a few rural school districts have allowed students back in the classroom.

Unlike last year, students are being graded this year and attendance is being taken, but not in a traditional way.

In accordance with Oregon’s Ready Schools, Safe Learners state guidelines for education amid a pandemic, students need only log on to a remote class, email or send a text message to their teacher once within a 24-hour period to receive credit for attending that day. The guidelines allow flexibility for students who may struggle to log into a class at the same time each day due to poor internet access or scheduling challenges.

Oregon’s definition of attendance during the pandemic could be “deceiving,” according to Alejandro Carrero-Ramos, a dual-language social studies teacher at South Meadows Middle School in Hillsboro, a suburb west of Portland.

“Let’s say that a student logs in and they leave their computer on for the duration of their class,” Carrero-Ramos said. “In theory, and according to the program, they will be present for the entire class from beginning to end. Well, was that student really engaging? It’s kind of a gray area, and that’s why during the class we implement multiple activities.” 

At the state level, the Oregon Department of Education collects attendance data from districts four times a year, but ODE administrators say the data is used only to determine how to allocate federal funding dollars to school districts, based on their student populations, and generate annual reports such as graduation and dropout rates.

Despite statewide initiatives like Every Day Matters, which emphasizes the importance of attending school every day for optimal outcomes, the data submitted to the state is not analyzed or shared publicly. As a result, attendance data is tracked only at the district level.

Similarly, the state education agency doesn’t ask for periodic grade reports, instead relying on annual assessments to determine student achievement and success in Oregon. That means it’s up to districts to address any problems in achievement without the benefit of statewide analysis. And it makes it difficult to identify statewide patterns, like the achievement gap for students of color that is evident from the records obtained by Pamplin Media Group. 

Jennifer Patterson is assistant superintendent with ODE’s Office of Teaching, Learning and Assessment. Patterson said Oregon’s education gaps aren’t new or unique.

“What we’re finding and discovering both locally and nationally is this is not an Oregon issue,” Patterson said. “There is a larger conversation around how are our children faring and how do we know that? What are the indicators we can count on? When letter grades are being used and if students are not passing, what does that tell us about how do we, as educators, think differently and approach our practice in new ways … and how also do we use it as an indicator of what students might need that they don’t have?”

Getting timely data is difficult

The remote learning format has thrust incredible challenges upon students, families and teachers. 

A recent report published by the Education Writers Association documented the achievement gap issue. The solutions, EWA suggests, include: “continued federal and state funding to school districts impacted by the pandemic, transparency in data reporting to most effectively target resources to those most in need, and equitable access to high-quality math teaching and learning.”

But getting an accurate, timely view of student engagement can be difficult. While several local school districts readily provided copies of their first-quarter attendance data when asked by reporters, the state agency pushed back when asked for the attendance data it has collected.

An agency spokesperson said the first-quarter data still needed to be validated by districts, and would not be made publicly available until February, more than halfway through the school year. More than a month after a records request, the agency provided the data, but rejected a request for a fee waiver. Pamplin Media Group paid $200 to obtain the attendance records of 12 districts, which it will be analyzing over the next few weeks, along with grading data providing by individual districts.

The lack of comparative data from the state makes it hard for the public to get the full grasp of the situation. In a Dec. 17 conference call with Oregon Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Beaverton, superintendents from rural and metropolitan districts shared their struggles with COVID-19 impacts on their ability to provide quality education.

In Clatskanie, a rural city along the Columbia River on the Oregon-Washington border, Superintendent Cathy Hurowitz told Bonamici that 136 students in the Clatskanie School District have dropped out since the pandemic hit. That represents nearly a fifth of the students enrolled a year ago.

Hurowitz said some have moved or have opted to attend school in Washington state, while others say they’ve opted for home school or online academies.

“We have about 56 at the community middle and high school that we know are just not engaged,” Hurowitz told the federal lawmaker during a pre-Christmas Zoom meeting. “Our hope is to get our students and staff back in the building safely.”

Even then, however, the challenges will remain.

Hurowitz believes many of the 136 students who disengaged eventually will return to the district when in-person learning resumes, but most will be behind their peers, leaving her staff to address a wide education gap.

Doing so will be a challenge for the rural Oregon district. Hurowitz said Clatskanie has enough extra building space, but lacks funds to hire extra staff needed to facilitate additional small classes.  

This article is part of a collaborative reporting project called Lesson Plans: Rural schools grapple with COVID. It includes the Institute for Nonprofit News, Charlottesville Tomorrow, El Paso Matters, Iowa Watch, The Nevada Independent, New Mexico in Depth, Underscore News/Pamplin Media Group, and Wisconsin Watch/The Badger Project. The collaboration was made possible by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation. You can read all the Oregon stories in the series at Underscore.news, in the Rural Education section on the homepage. 


Lead photo: Attendance rates for Oregon students of color are lagging rates for white students. But the gap does not seem as large in rural districts, such as Jefferson County 509, which serves large Latino and Native American student populations. Underscore photo: Sergio Olmos

About the author

Courtney Vaughn

Courtney Vaughn is a reporter for the Portland Tribune who has covered K-12 education in Oregon’s two largest school districts.